Polanyi

Throughout The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi insists on the “reality of society,” and how economic liberalism systematically operates to undermine this reality. In the final chapter of his great work, Polanyi observes,

No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent, nor a world in which force has no function. It was an illusion to assume a society shaped by man’s will and wish alone. Yet this was the result of a market view of society which equated economics with contractual relationships, and contractual relations with freedom. The radical illusion was fostered that there is nothing in human society that is not derived from the volition of individuals and that could not, therefore, be removed again by their volition. Vision was was limited by the market which ‘fragmented’ life into the producers’ sector that ended when his product reached the market. The one derived his income ‘freely’ from the market, the other spent it ‘freely’ there. Society as a whole remained invisible” (266).

Polanyi develops two interesting ideas here. First, he rejects the notion that society is nothing more than the sum of its parts. Not only is this a “radical illusion,” it is a “stark utopia,” a dangerous invention of nineteenth-century society. Second, by way of Marx’s analysis of the commodity fetish, Polanyi exposes the nominalistic fallacy at the heart of economic liberalism.

Polanyi was no metaphysician, but the fact that he regarded Marx as an invaluable resource for expressing philosophical – if not sacramental – realism, is something worth considering.

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